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Not yet proving he’s worth his salt

By Nick Cafardo
April 4, 2011

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ARLINGTON, Texas — When one listened to reports about Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s workouts over the winter, one marveled at his dedication and almost could feel his exhaustion.

He wasn’t lounging on a beach in Cabo. He either was working out on his own around his West Palm Beach home or with Red Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck on his defense.

And by the team’s standard, he made great progress.

His blocking of balls, throwing, and knowledge of each pitcher improved — enough for the Sox to hold off signing free agents such as Yorvit Torrealba, Russell Martin, John Buck, and Bengie Molina, or trading for Mike Napoli. Saltalamacchia then led all Sox hitters in spring training with a .405 average in 37 at-bats.

If anyone deserved to get off to a strong start, Salty did.

The Sox hitched their wagon to Saltalamacchia, and his strong spring reinforced their evaluation.

Three poor games haven’t changed that, but fans are wondering about the team’s faith in him, and that will be an ongoing situation. This was, after all, Jason Varitek’s team for more than a decade, and now Saltalamacchia needs to prove he’s a worthy successor.

Tough to do when you’ve started the season 0 for 10 and when the staff you’re handling has allowed 26 runs, 34 hits, and 11 homers in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Rangers, capped off by yesterday’s 5-1 loss.

“It’s obviously not the way you want to start, but then again it’s 10 at-bats into the season,’’ said Saltalamacchia. “As far as the team goes it’s three games into the season. We have some stuff to work on, but we’re going to take our day off [today] and come out against Cleveland.’’

Manager Terry Francona normally would have gone with Varitek in a day game after a night game, but Francona wanted to get Saltalamacchia going offensively. And that didn’t happen.

“The one thing he does so well is work the count and swing at strikes,’’ said Francona. “He’s anxious right now swinging at a lot of first-pitch strikes. He needs to relax and do what he can do and not try to get it all back in one at-bat.’’

Saltalamacchia received his American League championship ring from the Rangers yesterday, presented to him by Texas general manager Jon Daniels, who traded him to Boston at the deadline last July 31. Saltalamacchia didn’t have the best of times when he was a Ranger, and perhaps he wanted so badly to perform well against his old team that it worked in reverse.

“I was really amped up,’’ he said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. It’s the team I used to play for. I wanted to go out there and put good at-bats together. We were losing and I wanted to win. So I tried to get a little bit more aggressive and tried to make something happen. But we learn something every day. I just have to be more patient.’’

The Sox told him from the outset not to worry about his offense, but Saltalamacchia believes he’s got the potential to provide power from both sides of the plate. We saw glimpses of that in spring training, but now that the bell has rung, the offense has disappeared.

Francona took Saltalamacchia off the hook for the 11 homers.

“Salty does a very good job with the pitchers,’’ Francona said. “If a ball goes over the middle, that’s just the way it is. And those guys, if you make a mistake, they’ll capitalize on it and hit it a long way. A tough three-game series isn’t going to change our view on Salty.’’

Saltalamacchia made no apologies for anything he did behind the plate.

“We went after them with our strengths,’’ he said. “I don’t think anyone regrets any pitch they threw. I don’t regret any pitch I called. They’re a good-hitting team. We’re going to pitch to our strengths.

“We’re not going to go out there changing things because we’ve given up a few hits. With a veteran team, we all know what we can do. We’re going to play our game and pitch our game. Guys like Jon Lester and John Lackey and Clay [Buchholz] aren’t going to change their game because of this series. Like my situation at the plate, we’re just going to get better.’’

Did Francona consider hitting for Saltalamacchia in the seventh inning with runners on first and second, one run in, and one out.

“No,’’ the manager said emphatically. “He has a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark.’’

Instead, he flied to right field.

With three straight losses, everything gets magnified. Carl Crawford was the focus until yesterday, when he had two hits after he was dropped to seventh in the order. After Adrian Gonzalez started so well, he went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts after being moved up to the three spot.

Saltalamacchia is going to receive a lot of attention from here on out.

When baseball people assess the Sox, they always question why the Sox have so much faith in Saltalamacchia. And at this point the team has to be all in with him because it has no real alternative. The Sox would hate to have to turn to the 39-year-old Varitek full-time if things didn’t work out.

Saltalamacchia wants to reward the Sox’ faith and prove the naysayers wrong, just as he wanted to prove the Rangers wrong during this series.

The Rangers felt they had gone as far as they could with him before dealing him. The great potential never emerged here, and after a couple of injuries and the throwing difficulties that got him demoted to Triple A, the Rangers felt they had invested enough. They allowed Saltalamacchia to go to a situation where the cycle could begin anew.

The clock is now ticking.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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